President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) listen on February 7, 2023 in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. The speech marks Biden’s first address to the new Republican-controlled House. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin-Pool/Getty Images)
The State of the Union is usually a useless stale slog that turns healthy brain cells to mush.
Charlie Cook, the veteran Washington pundit, got it right some years ago when he said of the State of the Union, “On my deathbed, watching it will be on the long list of hours that I will wish I could retrieve and spend doing almost anything else.”
But this week’s State of the Union was a rare treat that proved for the umpteenth time Joe Biden should never be underestimated. At this point in his achievement-studded presidency, are we really supposed to be surprised that he kicked butt? In truth, It was hilarious to watch a mentally sharp 80-year-old torment the MAGA clown caucus the way a cat toys with a dead mouse.
Is he planning to run for re-election? Duh. The speech was festooned with lines like “Folks, we’re just getting started.” Ask yourself what other Democrat is better equipped, by dint of experience and political savvy, to keep the Visigoths away from the gates of power.
And what a crowd he faced! Behind his left shoulder sat a guy who needed 15 ballots to win the Speaker’s gavel with the last-ditch assistance of the party’s freaks and frauds. In front of Biden sat more than 100 foes of democracy, the treason-adjacent “law”makers who’d refused to certify his 2020 victory – most vocally, Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose outbursts (“Liar!”) brought to mind an old quote attributed to Abe Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.”
How delicious it was to watch Biden drive the Republicans nuts with a list of accomplishments that only delusionists can ignore. Just a couple of highlights include the lowest jobless rate since the summer man first walked on the moon, the most sweeping investment in rebuilding roads, bridges, and rail since Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate highway initiative seven decades ago, and a law that finally requires the feds to negotiate lower prices for some prescription drugs covered by Medicare.
But what mattered most was the way he delivered the info, with well-timed puckish mischief.
Like when he addressed the Republicans who voted against his infrastructure law even though they’ll reap the rewards in their red districts: “We’ll fund those projects and I’ll see you at the groundbreaking.” Like when he goaded them – in real time, on live TV – to agree not to slash Social Security and Medicare.
The latter episode was fun to watch. Biden reminded them that, in their zeal to scissor the federal safety net, some of them (Senators Rick Scott and Ron Johnson, and others) have proposed reducing the national debt by indeed slashing Social Security and Medicare. Republicans in the chamber mustered another primal scream, either because they wanted to deny what some of them have proposed, or because they didn’t want TV viewers to hear it. Biden stood his ground: “Anybody who doubts it, contact my office. I’ll give you a copy. I’ll give you a copy of the proposal.”
He turned the outraged rumbling to his advantage. If the Republicans were so upset that he’d mentioned the slashing proposals, surely it meant that they were in sync with his determination to protect those essential programs: “Folks – so folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the (negotiating table) now, right? They’re not to be – all right! We’ve got unanimity!”
Now he had the whole chamber cheering for Social Security and Medicare: “So tonight, let’s all agree – and we apparently are – let’s stand up for seniors. Stand up and show them we will not cut Social Security. We will not cut Medicare…And if anyone tries to cut Social Security” – now he was reading the room – “which apparently no one’s going to do, and if anyone tries to cut Medicare, I’ll stop them. I’ll veto it. And look, I’m not going to allow them to be taken away. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever. But apparently” – now he was reading the room again – “it’s not going to be a problem.”
Granted, Biden (like all of his predecessors) has weathered some setbacks. During his first two years, many of his ambitious proposals – including paid family medical leave, more affordable housing, health coverage expansion, and a beefed-up child tax credit – died in the legislative sausage-making, and they’re certainly DOA in the new Republican House. Lest we forget, the elected MAGAts have no interest in helping average Americans live better lives.
It’s true that Biden’s current poll numbers are tepid (Ronald Reagan’s were worse at the start of 1983, before easily winning re-election in 1984), and I attribute that to several reasons: Ours is an instant-gratification culture, and it will be a few years before Biden’s legislative achievements hit home; ours is a culture that worships youth, and the MAGA propagandists often score points by depicting Biden as a drooling demented fossil.
When the State of the Union was over, former Republican congressman David Jolly tweeted: “Whoa. It’s not often you see an 80-year-old man giving a public beatdown to 222 grown adults, but my word. What a night.”
He was charitable to call them adults. But what a night indeed. And let’s remember that Harry Truman, dismissed as politically dead in 1948, won re-election by using Republicans as a foil, campaigning against their “know-nothing do-nothing Congress.”
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